By Barbara Roden
A recent report from Statistics Canada shows that the income of seniors in B.C. is declining relative to seniors in the rest of the country; a fact that concerns Isobel Mackenzie, the BC Seniors Advocate.
While data released two weeks ago shows that nationally, senior families saw an increase of income of 1.9 per cent, and single seniors saw a 2.3 per cent increase, the story is very different in B.C.
Province-wide, the median income of senior families has fallen by 5.7 per cent, while single seniors have seen their income drop 6.3 per cent since 2013.
Nationally, the percentage of Canadians aged 65 and over living on low incomes rose to 12.5 per cent. In particular, 30 per cent of single, elderly women are considered low income, which is triple the level of two decades ago.
In contrast, the StatsCan report says that in B.C. single, working-age individuals saw a 4.7 per cent increase in their median income, while working-age couples with children saw a 9.7 per cent increase.
“We have to start paying attention to what the data are telling us,” says Mackenzie. “Median income gives us one of the best measures of incomes, as it is not distorted by the very high or very low incomes of small minorities. We know that seniors have the lowest median income of any age cohort over 25, and now we know that, in B.C., seniors’ incomes are actually shrinking while other age groups are experiencing significant increases.”
She points to several reasons for the decreases, including record low interest rates, life expectancy exceeding the time frame of a Registered Retirement Income Fund, and the inability of private pensions to provide cost of living increases. She adds that while the lowest income seniors in B.C. receive the B.C. Seniors Supplement, the amount of the supplement has not changed for over 25 years.
Mackenzie stresses, however, that financial assistance should be based on economic need, not age alone. Sara Darling, director of communications for the Office of the Seniors Advocate, says that while many seniors’ entitlements are means-tested, others, such as discounts on B.C. Ferries and transit passes, are not.
“Just because you are a senior you shouldn’t be entitled” to discounts, she says, noting that a more graduated fee structure for seniors’ transit passes might be in order. “Many things are tied to income; this should be extended to other areas.”
Darling adds that another difficulty seniors face when it comes to financial assistance is that there is no employment option. “If you’re young and need some support, such as home support, there’s also an incentive to get back to work. You need care and employment.” This approach works well for those of working age, but is not an option for a population that is not, and will not be, an active participant in the labour force.
Mackenzie is a proponent of the Property Tax Deferral program, which allows homeowners aged 55 and older to defer their property tax payments, thus freeing up that income in the short term, although she cautions against starting too early. “Do you need the money, or do you want it?” is, she says, a question people need to ask themselves before enrolling in the program. The deferred taxes are repaid when the house is sold.
Darling says that the Office of the Seniors Advocate would like to see that extended to include a property expense deferral program, so that some household expenses (such as necessary repairs, or utilities like hydro) could be deferred. “That would help leverage seniors’ home equity.”
She adds that “There should also be some type of mechanism to use equity in the home to offset medical costs. It’s safer than a reverse mortgage.
“We’re hearing from seniors themselves about [the need for] a progressive approach to subsidies and entitlements,” Darling continues, noting that Mackenzie travels all over the province speaking with seniors. “Some don’t feel that way, but many do.”